In another trying week for America, where the news is filled with stories about corruption and apathy and intolerance and the senseless death of yet more children, it would be easy to retreat into diatribes of anger and despair. I understand the impulse, and see the utility of joining in on the outrage. But I also feel it’s important to talk about what makes the world beautiful, and humanity worth fighting for, if only so that those who refuse once more to dismiss political expedience and entrenched ideology in the name of sensible progress are reminded of the what their obstinate world-views just cost the slaughtered.
This week that comes from a strange place, in my view. The Olympics, after all, are not exactly the paragon of virtue they are marketed as. The corruption of the IOC makes FIFA look like a soup kitchen. Politicians use the games for all sorts of ingenuous propaganda. Cheating and poor sportsmanship remain rampant, and for all the talk about cleaning sports up, these things have in the end been tacitly rewarded. I haven’t had occasion to listen to Harry Shearer’s NPR program recently, but I suspect he’s having a field day with the “movement”
Still, I think that if Americans were to transcend their biases and give themselves over to the games, they would have a positive influence upon their world view. This is because any gathering like the Olympics offers the chance to look into the cultural traditions that give people all over the world great joy regardless of how stupid we in the states think they are.
I, in particular, have felt something of my Germanic roots enlivened by biathlon, which for some reason I never gave much of a chance in games past. Not only do I think the athletes are performing remarkably physical feats, but I now find it to be very exciting as a spectator sport, as the course of any race can be radically altered by a single missed shot. I never quite understood why biathlon was so popular in a country otherwise obsessed with such a beautiful and fluid sport as football, but now I not only get it, but I understand as well that my not “getting it” was missing the point to begin with. The real point was that a people did get it, and not for arbitrary reasons had this occurred.
Yeah, yeah, you say, liberal relativism, I get it. Kumbaya and holding hands and buying the world a Coke and all that garbage. And, by the way Chris, it’s easy to say this when half of the people you turn in to watch look like you– and the other half are women.
That’s not my point. Not exactly, anyway. If you find biathlon to be boring, I’m not going to excoriate you for not watching it in the name of world peace and forced brotherhood. What I’m saying is, if you don’t give it a chance, you’re closing yourself off to something that provides a people joy. And when you do that, you’re refusing to understand what makes people different. And when you do that, you’re retreating in the kind of provincialism that is causing us so many problems these days.
I’m not saying that watching a bunch of men and women in bodysuits strapping air rifles to their backs is going to prevent the next school shooting or solve the immigration crisis. That’s absurd.
What I will argue, though, is something akin to the essential spirit of An American Song. Travel broadens both the intellect and the spirit. But when you don’t have the chance to actually travel, doing it by proxy is the next best thing.
Modern Americans have unprecedented access to information about foreign cultures, and yet we largely refuse to investigate even the variations on domestic culture that make our nation so richly diverse. I hear people talk about how it would be better for California to fall into the sea or for Mississippi to sink into the mud or for New York City to just kiss off with its antipathetic amorality, and I think, no wonder Americans think Salvadorans are all gang members and Mexicans are rapists and murderers. No wonder the President can refer to an entire continent as a shithole and be defended by half the population. No wonder it doesn’t bother people when a few dozen Afghans get blown up by a cruise missile, or when a bunch of starving Syrians die of exposure in the nether-regions between Serbia and Hungary. And yes, no wonder the death of schoolchildren in one of the 49 states they don’t live in sends them careening back into the same absurd defenses of their rigid, unconditionable political positions that they resorted to the last time a bunch of Americans living out their peaceful lives were gunned down.
See, there I go again, indulging that itch to engage in the outrage!
So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go watch a bunch of Northern Europeans hurl themselves off a giant slab of ice. And I’m going to try to wrench some joy from the throngs of lunatics standing out in the frigid Korean winter to watch them do it. And I’m going to to try to remember that there is too much joy and beauty in this world to restrict myself to any singular perspective.